By Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
SPOKANE — Officials from Washington expressed disappointment Wednesday that Fairchild Air Force Base was not chosen as the first home of the Air Force’s new aerial refueling tankers.
Members of the Kansas congressional delegation announced that McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., was chosen as the first base to receive the new Boeing-built KC-46A tankers. Fairchild, the Spokane area’s largest single employer, remains a candidate to receive new tankers later.
“This is an extremely unfortunate decision by the Air Force,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “Fairchild Air Force Base has a strong tradition as an integral part of our national defense and is ideally located, particularly as U.S. strategy calls for directing greater attention to the Pacific theater.”
The new aircraft will replace the aging KC-135 fleet flown for the past 50 years by crews including those at Fairchild. The Air Force will base 36 of the new aircraft at McConnell starting in 2016. It also will spend $192 million to upgrade the base.
Fairchild was a finalist for the job, along with bases in North Dakota and Oklahoma. Supporters pointed to Fairchild’s long service as a tanker base, its position on the Pacific Rim and its 14,000-foot runway as key advantages. Boeing is only hours away by land, in the Seattle area, if issues with the planes arise.
Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents the Spokane area in Congress, expressed disappointment in a joint statement. But they also expressed optimism for the future.
“The Secretary of the Air Force stated today that Fairchild will be a strong contender for future tanker basing decisions,” Cantwell said.
McMorris Rodgers said the Air Force plans to buy 179 KC-46A tankers.
“It is important to remember that this is only the first installment of 36 tankers,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Fairchild will compete very well and is in an excellent position to receive (additional tankers).”
Murray demanded a formal briefing from the Air Force on the decision-making process.
Fairchild is home to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, which operates more than 30 KC-135 tankers.
The base is the Spokane area’s single largest employer, with 5,800 workers and an economic impact of $1.3 billion per year. It has helped draw some 17,000 military retirees to the Spokane area.
But supporters have been worried for two decades that it could be targeted for closure, and have been working to secure new missions.
Spokane business leaders and the Washington congressional delegation had been working toward bringing new tankers to Fairchild for more than a decade, although the efforts intensified after 2011 when Boeing was chosen to build the KC-46A.
Being the first home of the new tankers was thought to be insurance against closure threats.
The KC-135, known as the Stratotanker, was built from the same prototype as the Boeing 707 jetliner, and started rolling off the assembly lines in the mid-1950s. The first ones arrived at Fairchild in 1958, where they refueled B-52s that were also stationed at the base. The bombers were reassigned to other bases in 1994, and more tanker squadrons were sent to Fairchild.